DVD Review Of The 400 Blows
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/23/07
In 1959 a pair French films were released that became the twin pillars of the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), and were instantly hailed as classics. One, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A Bout de Souffle), was a bad film, and the other, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups), was a good film. Neither, however, can really be called great cinema, despite their reputations. That said, Truffaut’s film is far better than Godard’s because it mostly avoids overt clichés, even as its screenplay- its weakest element, written by Truffaut and Marcel Moussey, often bogs down in anomy. Like Godard, Truffaut shot his film in black and white, and indulged the real world, as well as doing long takes, to try to feign naturalism, even though these were often outcomes of necessity not choice, borne out of lack of financing rather than artistic vision.
While both films achieved a feel closer to cinema verité with these technical contrivances, neither could really be thought of as narratively innovative, for Breathless is a string of unsubverted clichés while The 400 Blows is a rather familiar tale of misspent youth. It is, in a sense, an updated and less colorful, if not watered down, Charles Dickens tale transplanted across the English Channel. Also, the film’s hero- the lower class fourteen year old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who sleeps in tattered pajamas- claimed to be Truffaut in this autobiographic film, is quite a bit less colorful than Dickens’ young protagonist con men. Even though he is constantly in trouble, and called a thief, arsonist, liar, and plagiarist, these are clearly things almost all young boys do in their formative years, with few ever becoming major criminals.
The film was shot in Truffaut’s childhood neighborhood in Paris, and follows Antoine’s descent into juvenile detention as he mouths off to teachers, gets into hot water with his pal Rene Bigey (Patrick Auffay), watches his sexpot blond mother (Claire Maurier), who is fond of tight sweaters, and has the figure and ample bosom to warrant such fondness, cheat on his stepfather (Albert Remy)- the man who gave him a ‘name', pushes his stepdad to the limit, and generally thumbs his nose at authority. Really, there is no story, and this anomy is supposed to be a breakthrough in mirroring reality. Of course, art can never be reality, by its nature, so when we see boring, long drawn out scenes it’s not brilliance but merely boring, long drawn out scenes. There are nuggets of absolute brilliance between, however, and it is these nuggets, as well as the relative lack of clichés that adorn Breathless that put these two films in different artistic leagues.
Some of the best scenes in this film are when Rene’s dad sees him hiding in his son’s room, after they’ve been smoking, but does not say anything, when the family actually bonds when they got o see a movie, which leads to a scene where M. Doinel squeezes his wife’s lovely breasts playfully, and then the two bravura scenes at the end of the film where, interviewed by a psychologist, Antoine rambles on naturally about his life and situation, including his knowing his mother wanted to abort him, but was talked out of it by her mother, whom he’s stolen from, and Antoine’s escape from the reform school, and run toward the ocean, which he’s never seen, and the film’s final freeze frame, where he can either stare at the endless and uncaring expanse or go back to confinement. It’s a good ending but not as powerful an ending as another 1959 film that ends on a beach. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, for this ending suspends, it never exhales, and- truthfully, the viewer is never as engaged with Léaud’s young protagonist as they are with Marcello Mastroianni’s debauched character.
The scene with the psychologist has seen variants play out in films as diverse as Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. The former film took the speaking to the camera in the opposite direction, with an actress, Ingrid Thulin, reciting a handwritten letter with no cuts, while Allen had his actress, Charlotte Rampling, look into a camera and ramble on with quick cut edits that highlighted her breakdown. Truffaut splits the difference and cuts the interview replies seamlessly so that we get the sense of time wearing on the child, as his answers become increasingly more ‘real’ and personal. The cinematography by Henri Decaë is fluid but often just dies, and this change in energy within a scene seems to be happenstance, not intended, and makes the film reek its low budget and inartistic roots a bit too much. The music, scored by Jean Constantin, is a non-factor, for good or ill.
Other than that, there is not very much else to say about the actual interior film- for it is a picaresque whose vignettes just hang together enough to be an enjoyable viewing experience. That said, much of it was dull- although at 99 minutes it avoids being too long, and an older and wiser filmmaker would have made a better film, had they been daring enough. However, without Léaud this film would not have been what it was. He gives one of the four or five greatest child performances in film history. With a lesser actor, The 400 Blows would have been far more paint by the numbers, and I have a feeling that, given Truffaut reportedly allowed Léaud, a child, to improvise his answers in the psychologist scene, the filmmaker was aware that the film’s success rose or fell with the young first time actor. It is also a key to understanding the film’s title that the four hundred blows are metaphoric for the knocks that young Doinel takes, as well as apparent French slang for ‘sowing one’s wild oats’. This slang explanation does not really make sense though, so I wonder if it is merely one of those critical errors that just gets repeated ad nauseam by critics too lazy to actually investigate its verity.
Truffaut actually got his start in film as a critic, writing for the notoriously pretentious and masturbatory French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. He was a disciple of another of the seemingly endless –ismic gurus that pop up from time to time in certain art forms, the film critic Andre Bazin, whose ‘theories’ were the impetus behind the New Wave that launched Truffaut, Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer. Truffaut was the most financially and critically successful of these directors until he died at the age of 52 in 1983, of a brain tumor- his other great and internationally successful film, critically and financially, was Jules And Jim. Yet, if anything, Truffaut’s film has far more in common with Italian Neo-Realism than with Godard’s film, for the techniques are not so radical, and the eye level view of Paris is very in keeping with the best films of Vittorio De Sica, like The Bicycle Thief or Umberto D.
The DVD, part of a five disk collection from The Criterion Collection, called The Adventures Of Antoine Doinel- which also has the other feature films featuring this character: Stolen Kisses (Baisers Volés - 1968), Bed And Board (Domicile Conjugal- 1970), and Love On The Run (1979), also contains the second Antoine film, a thirty minute black and white segment from the 1962 anthology film Love At Twenty (L’Amour À Vingt Ans), which featured short films from other big name directors: Shintarô Ishihara, Marcel Ophüls, Renzo Rossellini, and Andrzej Wajda, and was a commercial and critical bomb. Antoine And Colette is a mere footnote, with a few flashback scenes to The 400 Blows. We get caught up with the fact that the now seventeen year old Doinel, again played by Léaud, was caught after his escape, was reformed, and now works in a record pressing company. He is on his own now, still friends with Rene (Patrick Auffray), and unrequitedly in love with a girl named Colette (Marie-France Pisier) whom he meets at local lectures and concerts. Despite gaining the approval of him from her parents, she does not have sexual feelings for Doinel, and cruelly flaunts her new beau in his face, at dinner at her parents’ apartment, to emasculate Doinel. This is the only good moment in the little film, which- were it not for the audience familiarity with Doinel from the earlier film, would have almost no resonance, for the character of Colette, aside from her good looks, is a total cipher. The screenplay, by only Truffaut, is almost nonexistent. The cinematography by Raoul Coutard is generic.
Both films come in 2.35:1 aspect ratios, but there is no English dubbed soundtrack for the film- always a disappointment in this visual medium. To be forced to read words when there is a way to avoid that is sheer laziness and contempt for the audience, especially almost half a century later, when money is not at issue. Antoine And Colette is without a film commentary, but there are two appended to The 400 Blows. One is by Truffaut’s childhood friend- the inspiration for Rene, Robert Lachenay, but it has almost nothing to offer save a few ramblings on their childhood, and how real events seeped into the film. There is an enormous amount of dead air in this commentary and it is curious as why they just didn’t record an interview with the man, and forget trying to make it a commentary. The only worthwhile tidbit we learn is that Truffaut’s parents resented the film’s autobiographical nature. The other commentary is better, if a bit generic. It is by American film expert and historian Brian Stonehill, who gives a rather paint by numbers commentary on the scenes and background, and reads a bit too fast from his script. He also goes overboard in trying to compare this rather familiar film narrative to the writings of Marcel Proust, or the first person narrative of the film to Alfred Hitchcock’s films. However, given the bad commentary by Lachenay, it is at least informative, especially when tidbits like the film being shot silent, with rerecorded dialogue and sound added back in show just how ‘unrealistic’ the New Wave films were. There are rare footage shots of some of the young actors in The 400 Blows, a French trailer for the film, newsreel footage of Léaud in Cannes for the festival, an excerpt from a French tv show, and another tv interview with Truffaut about The 400 Blows, where he sensibly admits it’s not as good as critics say it is.
Of course, leave it to the critics to a) not get some of the manifest
flaws in the film’s technical presentation and b) wildly rhapsodize about
certain aspects of the film in the most trite of ways. In an online
essay, a critic named John Conomos,
not only ejaculates ridiculously about the film, but does so in a prose so
gushing, so teenaged, that it seems as if it might be the writings young Doinel
plagiarized, but not from Balzac, rather a French romance writer. For ease, I
have underlined those words, tropes, and phrases that are trite and/or
inarticulate. The grammatical errors I have left intact:
For me, the arresting concluding scenes of The 400 Blows are some of the most hauntingly personal scenes in all of French cinema. From the moment Antoine escapes from the reform school at a soccer game where he throws in the ball to play and then turns around and takes flight from the soccer ground, to one of the most famous freeze-frames in cinema’s history where Antoine is located in the sea and turns around towards us, we are witnessing cinema as if for the first time….Truffaut's camera, at a particularly moving moment, stands still and pans from right to left, taking in the desolate beach and the waves of the sea. Then, suddenly, we are behind Antoine as he faces the sea in the distant. This darkened full shot of the teenage protagonist suggests the underlying co-existing sadness and beauty in his life….The 400 Blows is innovative in its excellent directorial touch and the awesome supple creativity that stamps each scene of the film with its casual and poetic use of reality as the main ingredient of the film. It tells us in simple compassionate terms a collective moral truth that we know in our bones but is often swept under the carpet of adult conformity - that a child entering adulthood amounts to a second painful birth. We care for Antoine, for most of us in some way have experienced the light and darkness of his childhood.
But, before you chide me for picking on the horrendously bad writings of an unknown online critic, be warned. The most famed American film critic of the last fifty years, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his writing, if not intellectual vigor, on films, Roger Ebert, places The 400 Blows on his list of hundred greatest films; an act that, if not as directly offending to the senses as Conomos’ prose and criticism, may give insight into how he can also consider Steven Spielberg to be a great film director.
Regardless, The 400 Blows is merely a good film with some great moments- like Antoine in the Gravitron or when his gym class starts thinning out as they jog with their teacher. Yet, its flaws highlight why most schools, movements, or -isms fail. They do so because they naturally must break free from the artificial constraints such ideas and ideals impose. Delimited art is generally bad art. And this film’s formlessness, plus some corny moments as a single tear in Doinel’s eye as he is taken away in a prison truck, doom the film from reaching a greatness it may have attained with a better screenplay and more experienced eye behind the camera and in the editing room. But, it is a worthwhile film, nonetheless, which held out the potential for later and greater works. That’s more than many first films, New Wave or not, have ever done, and something Antoine Doinel may embody, if never achieve.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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